American Elephants

High-Speed Rail — High-Speed Boondoggle. by The Elephant's Child

Across the country, branch rail lines are being torn out.  The  Union Pacific branch line that I grew up with is long gone and converted to the “Rails to Trails” program.  The line that once carried the longest cattle train in the country is gone and the ranch that supplied the cattle sold and divided.  The loggers are gone from the forest and the log trains are no more, and the lumber mills have closed.  Time marches on.

Rail built much of the West.  Cities grew up around rail terminuses.  Small towns vanished when they were bypassed. The story of rail crossing the continent is part of history and legend.  I’ve often thought that perhaps Obama has some old movies in mind when he boosts rail as an answer to unemployment.  All those men laying rails, pounding spikes was a vision of vast numbers of jobs.  But time marches on.

Rail was once incredibly glamorous.  The subject of movies, novels and song. Think Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, Casey Jones, City of New Orleans, Engine Engine Number 9, Five Hundred Miles, I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow, there are literally hundreds.  Movies from 310 to Yuma to Union Pacific, The Orient Express and The Great Train Robbery.  There’s a test for you:  how many can you think of?  Time Marches On.

Today, to say “railroad” inspires no glamour — thus the appellation “high speed” has been added.  Very 21st Century.  Actually a very notable example of government’s inability to learn from past mistakes.  The government has ponied up $900 million to build the first 65 miles of  high speed rail in California from the little towns in the Central Valley running from  Corcoran to Borden.  The $900 million includes track, but no trains, no stations, no equipment.  And there’s a big ugly secret that nobody mentions.  Bullet trains cannot run on ordinary track.

The bullet trains that everyone extols run where population density is much higher than in the United States.  In the U.S. population density is 86 people per square mile.  Americans live in suburbs. In Japan, density in 880 people per square mile.  Japan’s population is congregated along the coast. Rail is heavily subsidized.

Obama insists that high speed rail would relieve traffic congestion. Traffic is congested in this country in cities.  Trains run between cities and do not relieve city congestion. In Europe and Japan, rail is heavily subsidized, but geography and energy policies differ.  The United States is a big country and plentiful land has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Distances between cities are greater, trips are longer.  Beyond 300 to 500 miles, trains cannot compete with planes.  In Europe and Japan, gas prices are higher — in August 2008 gasoline in Japan was $6.50 a gallon.  Americans believe $4 gas an outrage, and they resent gasoline taxes.

High-speed rail is a economic boondoggle, a fantasy. Obama is going to call for spending (another) $53 billion over the next six years on high-speed rail between major cities, with $8 billion in the 2010 budget.  Bullet trains need dedicated, carefully engineered lines than may run more than $50 million a mile to construct.  Our experience with rail indicates that the ridership promised simply will not happen.

A Noted Law Professor Takes on Health-Care Waivers. by The Elephant's Child

Yes!  Philip Hamburger, who is the Maurice and Hilda Friedman Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, asks an important question: Are Health-Care Waivers Unconstitutional?
The president, he says, cannot simply decide who does and does not have to follow the law.

The Department of Health and Human Services has so far granted 733 waivers from one of the statute’s key requirements.

The recipients of the waivers include insurers such as Oxford Health Insurance, labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, and employers such as PepsiCo.  This is disturbing for many reasons.  At the very least, it suggests the impracticability of the health-care law, HHS gave the waivers because it fears the law will cost many Americans their jobs and insurance.

More seriously, it raises questions about whether we live under a government of laws.  Congress can pass statutes that apply to some businesses and not others, but once a law has passed — and therefore is binding — how can the executive branch relieve some Americans of their obligation to obey it?

Professor Hamburger asks how it is decided just who can get a waiver, and who can not ?  “Waivers are mostly, if not entirely, for politically significant businesses and unions that get the special attention of HHS or the White House.  The rest of us must obey the laws.”

He traces the history of waivers, from the “dispensations” from canon law offered by the Pope in the Middle Ages, through the English kings, Parliament and The Glorious Revolution of 1688.  It is a tour de force.  It is an article worth your time.

ADDENDUM: It is worth noting that now that SEIU members have received their waiver from the ObamaCare law, they are out there campaigning for ObamaCare.  With the tee shirts and everything.

Remember When You Could See the Stars? by American Elephant
February 8, 2011, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Entertainment, Environment, Science/Technology | Tags: , ,

When you could look up at night and see the Milky Way, all the constellations and seemingly millions of stars?

Beautiful time-lapse film shot from the ALMA large array in the Atacama desert in South America. You can watch it in full-screen HD here, which I highly recommend.

I haven’t seen that many stars in a very long time. What about you?

(P.S. Sorry the music sucks, not much I can do about that)

The United Kingdom Explained! by The Elephant's Child
February 8, 2011, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Freedom, History, United Kingdom | Tags: , ,

I love this! It simply clarifies everything, sort of.
(h/t: Maggie’s Farm)

Republicans Take On Federal Regulations, and President Obama. by The Elephant's Child

The Republican led House this week is taking Obama up on his claim that he wants to make government rules and regulations less burdensome for business. The president did issue an executive order filled with weasel words and elastic deadlines in which nothing much would get accomplished.

Republicans are pushing through legislation actually making regulations go away, beginning in the Government Oversight Reform Committee, where business leaders will testify this week about just which regulations stand in the way of job creation.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Transportation Department will surely be castigated.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas limits, beside being meaningless, are a big burden on business, as is the simple weight of not knowing just what regulations may be issued tomorrow.

President Obama has made it very clear that he does not understand how jobs are created.  He expects to manage the process.  I have a small amount of sympathy, for it can be hard if you are sure your expertise is needed, to get out of the way and let free people fix things on their own.  Freedom can be very frightening to a control freak.

Republicans point out that the president’s planned cuts don’t apply to some of the most enthusiastic regulators and those who require the most unnecessary paperwork. Republicans have no intention of excluding any agency or department from their scrutiny.  There is a suspicion that Obama was more interested in creating headlines than jobs.

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